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Pricey medicines, flourishing pharmaceutical industry

I WENT to a Sobhanbagh pharmacy to buy some medicine last week. I was in for a shock, similar to something we have experienced routinely and regularly over the last few years in steep price hike and exorbitant prices of most staples and essential items in grocery stores and retail markets.
The price of a common medicine that I needed had gone up overnight by a hefty margin. The store usually offers a token discount. When I requested a slightly more discount considering the sudden and unexpected sharp price increase, the callous and insensitive attitude of the store manager was ‘take it or leave it.’
I felt offended because a few years ago the then small and fringe store had lobbied and lured customers like me from the bigger and well-known pharmacy next door with the promise of better service and lower prices. That was then.
Back then it urgently needed customers to stay in business and flourish. This is now. I have bought medicine from the store for years since then. It is now well established and apparently could not care less for reliable patrons like me any longer.
It was a rude awakening. I asked the manager if I could talk to the owner. He informed me without batting an eyelash that it would be futile and told me that the owner would be there in the evening about six hours later. That was that.
I returned the medicine and went to the old familiar store next door and bought the medicine at the same high price. The whole unpleasant experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I did not gain anything other than expressing a symbolic protest against rude and uncalled for behaviour.
If you go to a doctor’s chamber, or a hospital or even a diagnostic centre you would be amazed by the number of patients of all ages and economic strata. It is quite incredible how crowded these places are. There has been a recent spate of articles in the press about the abrupt and rapid increase in the price of essential and lifesaving drugs.
I suppose the gravity of the situation never quite hit you unless you experience it first hand which I just did. Being a latent and somewhat low-key member of the invisible ‘world caring club’ and a perennial worrywart, I started worrying about the poor people in need of the medicines and how they could afford it.
Unfortunately, there is no formal or official healthcare system in this country that would provide medical care and medicine to most poor, needy, old, infirm and child patients. There are public hospitals and clinics that are run by the health ministry and the government. But we all know how uncaring, unhealthy and negligent these places generally are. A very sick person is lucky to get a sit or proper medical care at these places. And you still have to pay for most diagnostic tests and medicines and have to get these from outside clinics and stores.
There are several relatively new five-star hospitals that have sprung up in the city in recent years. There are about half a dozen of these that I can think of. They advertise newly appointed qualified physicians with oodles of foreign degrees, state of the art tests and equipment, excellent nursing care, comfortable and caring diagnosis and treatment and a lot more. The bare fact and the simple truth is that these are very expensive places that most people in this country just cannot afford.
With the steep jump in the price of medicine and the uncouth behaviour of the pharmacist fresh in mind, I came across a colourful public notice from the Association of Bangladesh Pharmaceutical Industry on March 12 in a section of the media. The purpose of the announcement was to send a rejoinder and a response to the ‘false’ allegations of ‘unbearable and unfair’ medicine price hike published in a section of the press.
The announcement described that a total of 208 pharmaceutical firms in the country produce 21,000 different quality medicines of 1,800 types. Despite price pressure due to depreciation of the taka against foreign currency, increase in the price of raw materials as well as fuel oil and natural gas, sizeable increase in the salary and benefits of the skilled manpower employed in these companies, they only increased the price of 5 per cent of the 21,000 medicines of 1,800 varieties.
The announcement then goes on to describe that these medicines are least expensive in this country compared to elsewhere, the prices of 95 per cent of the medicines have not been increased, the graciousness and goodness of the pharmaceutical industry and how unreasonable it has been for a section of the media to blame and implicate the industry for price gouging, etc.
For someone who occasionally delves into writing articles, the declaration, in my opinion, is too long as well as a bit long-winded; and also somewhat self-aggrandising and sanctimonious, if you ask me. But then this description perhaps is true for most public persons and professions in this country, from top political leadership, political parties, lucrative professions onward, upward and downward. This is how they usually describe themselves, the services they render and their exalted professions.
We have to take the explanation of the pharmaceutical industry with a grain of salt. What this announcement sorely misses is a description or a solution to the need and complicated problem created for the needy and financially insolvent people by the steep increase in the prices of certain life saving drugs.
The sense is that most of the 208 pharmaceutical companies are flourishing in the country. Even though they probably have to import most of the essential ingredients from abroad, they are contributing to the foreign exchange earnings by exporting the medicine to 82 countries, according to the figure provided by the industry mouthpiece in the announcement.
The industry claims that it is fully capable of meeting 98 per cent of the medicine need of the country. Well and good. It also claims that if not for the local industry and the low prices of locally produced medicine, people would have to buy the same type of medicine, produced and imported from abroad, at 4 to 5 times the price of indigenous medicine.
Well and dandy. But if the price of an essential medicine suddenly jumps by a high percentage, say 33 per cent or more, what is a poor or even a middle-class family to do, especially if their incomes have not increased significantly? How is the person or the family going to afford it especially if there is the constant need for the medicine or multiple medicines with the prices of all coincidentally among the 5 per cent medicines undergoing major price jumps?
The price of my medicine has gone up by a robust 33 per cent. It caused me some consternation, frustration and irritation but, thank God, I can afford it. What about those who cannot, especially those with low or limited income already reeling from the high rate of inflation and the soaring prices of essentials?
This society and the rulers have to come to the realisation that neglecting or overlooking the immense need of society for health care and affordable medicine is something that is eventually not going to earn any brownie points. These are things that everyone needs to worry about, think about and come to an acceptable solution about. All the sweet talk and self-promoting announcement by the pharmaceutical industry is of little value if the people lack income and the buying capacity to purchase the enhanced priced drugs.
We have a huge population and the most densely populated country in the world. It will not be good for anyone or the country to have a largely unhealthy, ailing and suffering population with no effective access to affordable healthcare and medication. That would really be a big problem and a real downer for all, the community and the country, taking into account the rosy business prospects and the pronounced charitable outlook of the pharmaceutical industry.

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